- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2011

DJIBOUTI
By Elmore Leonard
William Morrow, $26.99 279 pages

Djibouti” - it’s a country and a city and a song, but in the hands of Elmore Leonard, the 85-year-old master who has been at this game since 1956,

it becomes a mood and a several-sided symbol. For one thing, it brings to mind the word “booty,” which we associate with pirates, especially pirates of old. But in “Djibouti,” Mr. Leonard is referring to pirates who are very much of the 21st century, as in Somalia and hijacking and ransom and sharpshooters and death.

Dara Barr, a documentary filmmaker so talented (and, yes, drop-dead gorgeous, but in a casual, off-handed, ho-hum sort of way) that her first three films won awards, two of them Academy Awards, gets hooked on filming the Somali pirates. She hires her New Orleans neighbor Xavier LeBo, a 6-foot-6-inch black man whose years at sea include some 40 to 50 trips in and out of the Gulf of Aden. Xavier is well-acquainted with the port of Djibouti, a world-class crossroads for ships going just about anywhere.

One might think the sparks between these two handsome people would begin to fly immediately, but stud though he may be, at 72, Xavier is at least twice Dara’s age. So what we have here, Mr. Leonard seems to be telling us, is just a paternal, platonic, employer-employee relationship. Well, maybe, but they do spend weeks together, alone on a trawler, with lots of filming and drinking and a little flirting as they scout for shots while, at least in Dara’s case, hoping to encounter pirates.

Her problem is that she is romanticizing the pirates, and when she meets a real one, it only adds to her initial impression - hope? - that the Somali pirates are latter-day Robin Hoods. Xavier has no such illusions. He is all too well aware that while he and Dara shoot pictures, the pirates, and especially a couple of al Qaeda members who have infiltrated them for possible terroristic purposes, shoot bullets.

Entering port and starboard is the rest of the cast. There’s Harry, by birth a Brit and an Arab, and perhaps a CIA operative or an arms merchant or perhaps simply a crook, and also Idris, the dashing, well-dressed and well-spoken pirate Dara has just met. Also playing major roles are Texas billionaire Billy Wynne, who may simply be a dilettante, but could also be CIA or a superpatriotic cowboy.

Then there’s Jama, as cool and calculating a killing machine as Mr. Leonard has come up with in years. Like Xavier and Idris, young Jama is smitten by Dara’s beauty and elan. But while she is the real deal, he is a large slice of phony baloney. Born James Russell (with the emphasis on the second syllable) in the U.S., he learned Arabic while in prison and is now passing as an Arab. Jama has many skills, more than a little charm and absolutely no conscience.

The pirates are holding a small fleet of ships and their crews for ransom, but the one that has everyone’s attention is a huge tanker filled with liquefied natural gas; if it were docked and blown up in the port of Djibouti, the explosion would kill half a million people. So several people, Billy quite openly and Jama surreptitiously, are out to blow it up while it is still anchored in open water.

“Will they, won’t they?” applies to a number of the plot lines. But it doesn’t count for all that much because with Mr. Leonard the plot is just a convenient framework on which to hang his ever-fascinating characters, all of whom are developed through dialogue, not description.

Mr. Leonard’s oft-praised dialogue works because it is not, he readily admits, the way people actually talk. As he once told an interviewer, “I think that good dialogue is made up to sound realistic, but it isn’t that real at all. That would bore you to death.”

Mr. Leonard is also candid about admitting that another reason his books sound so “right” is that for decades he has used the same gifted researcher: “Gregg Sutter. He went to Atlantic City [in 1983] to research gambling. That was his first job, and he’s been doing it for me ever since. What he comes up with is unbelievable. You should see the stack of material I have on the pirates.”

All of that material was then absorbed and processed by the human storytelling machine many consider America’s best crime writer. And once again, with “Djibouti,” the end product is pure enjoyment.

You’d think that after more than 40 books, Elmore Leonard would slip just a little bit, that maybe one of his characters would come across as too hip, too cool, too Elmore-Leonardian, or maybe the pitch-perfect dialogue would go just a little bit flat or sharp. But no, not this time, not in a book by the dean of crime writers.

And especially not in a book with such a great title.

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